A landmark 1998 study purporting to show a link between vaccines and autism has now been exposed not just as "bad science," but as a fraud.
According to Reuters, the British Medical Journal has looked into the research by Andrew Wakefield (pictured), originally published in Lancet, that touched off claims of an autism-vaccine link. These claims have been swirling for over a decade, helped along by celebs like Jenny McCarthy, but Wakefield's research has been discredited for a long time. Back in 2009, the Times of London and Britain's General Medical Council found that Wakefield had misrepresented the problems of the children he studied, and their date of onset. Now, the editors of the BMJ say these weren't just mistakes: after reviewing the data, they say the vaccine study "was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud." They add, "Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield."
The BMJ based their conclusions on the findings of investigative journalist Brian Deer, who found that of the 12 supposedly autistic kids Wakefield studied, three didn't even have autism. And though Wakefield claimed all the kids were normal before vaccination, five of them had preexisting problems. Perhaps most damningly, writes Thomas Maugh of the LA Times, "none of the details of the medical histories of any of the patients could be matched to those cited in the Lancet article. All had been altered to make Wakefield's claims more convincing."
Wakefield's "research" touched off an entire anti-vaccine movement, resulting in, among other things, a more than twenty-fold rise in measles cases among English and Welsh children. Now that it appears he intentionally misled everyone, some people are understandably mad. A commenter on an SF Gate blog wrote, colorfully,"This man has caused normal healthy children to get sick Villain." Another suggested, "He should be sued by every family whose child got measles, mumps or rubella. Then he should be banished to a remote location with poor resources and terrible weather." Others weren't convinced that Wakefield's disgrace invalidates the link between autism and vaccines: "For those interested in seeing how the mass media/pharmaceutical industry is pushing for vaccinations. Seems like Wakefield's was not the most extensive research into the autism-vaccine link." Perhaps the best point, however, was made by a commenter who noted that Wakefield was far from the only one spreading misinformation about autism and other illnesses:
Villifying this guy wouldn't solve anything. There are a thousand or more others who have equally problematic levels of false belief and who feel compelled by their cause to pull into false territories. All we can do is to keep insisting on evidence over hope.
Journal Says Doctor Faked Data Linking Autism To Vaccines [Reuters, via Washington Post]
Wakefield's Paper Linking MMR Vaccine And Autism A Fraud On The Scale Of Piltdown Man, BMJ Editorial Says [LA Times]
Andrew Wakefield Found Fraudulent: Want To Vent? [Laura Shumaker, SF Gate City Brights Blog]